Thursday, December 1, 2011

Tom Waits- Bad As Me

Like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits has, over the past 20 years, grown into his aesthetic. Both artists spent years playing at being eccentric old men with bruised, whiskey soaked voices, mining pre-rock 'n roll music to craft their own unique blends of roadhouse R&B, country, folk, blues, and various ethnic idioms. Now they're both well into their 60s (actually, Dylan is 70!) and have, in a manner of speaking, become their personas, right down to long periods without new releases, meaning every record feels like an unexpected gift from a mercurial Grandfather or uncle you see once every few years. This is especially true of Waits, who spent the first half of the last decade releasing three well received studio albums and an exhaustive (but essential) three CD set of odds n' sods, then mostly puttering around touring and doing this or that.

Thus Bad As Me is his first proper studio album in seven years and still somehow sounds rushed and half-hearted. It's hard to imagine any fan of Waits being outright disappointed by this record—he has long since become too consistent a songwriter and too unique a performer to turn in a truly bad or dull album—but at the same time, it's hard to imagine anyone truly loving it the way people love Rain Dogs or even Alice . This is music which, at its best, is only good because it reminds you of the past. Moreover, this is the sort of record which, at its worst, is only tolerable because you remember the past. If 'Pay Me' and 'Back In The Crowd' weren't by Tom Waits, they would be amusing on-the-nose Waits parodies...except that they were recorded by him, and they're hollow shadows of what he's done before.

Bad As Me makes consistency into a weakness instead of a virtue just as it makes succinct song lengths into an issue. Much of this album either mimics or mines Waits's past yet as a whole these songs sound less distinct and unique because the production and overall aesthetic is perhaps the most consistent since his jazzy crooner/barfly pre-Swordfishtrombones era. Where 'Big In Japan' was a unique stomping opener to Mule Variations, its descendent here, 'Bad As Me', feels like an obligatory rocking song sandwiched in between two slower, more mellow tracks. Were Waits not singing these songs, they'd be as boring as any cover band playing standards and hits on a Wednesday night in a Minneapolis biker/dive bar. It's his performances that save this album and even then he seems barely invested, as if he's going through the motions.

Waits has been quoted as saying that this would be a collection of short, relatively straightforward material, and perhaps that helps explain why all these songs feel like first or second takes with unfinished, vague arrangements. Waits has never been at his best when he's limiting himself, and it turns out that self-enforced short songs, at least on this record, were not going to help the subpar songwriting. If 'Chicago' were slowed down a bit and allowed to breathe, it could've been a classic track. Likewise, 'Face To The Highway' plays like a sequel to the languid lament of 'Sins Of My Father' yet tries to do so in half the time.

It all comes down to two things: 1) an artist can't release a safe record like this after a seven year break, and 2) you can't spin consistency into a virtue if the songwriting isn't top-of-your-game. As stated above, it's hard to imagine anyone being disappointed by Bad As Me, but it's also hard to imagine anyone truly loving it.
3 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

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